Nerd is a derogatory slang term for an intelligent but socially awkward and obsessive person who spends time on unpopular or obscure pursuits, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.[1][2] Nerds are considered to be awkward, shy, and unattractive.[3] Thus, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by others, or will tend to associate with a small group of like-minded people. As with other pejoratives, nerd has been reappropriated by some as a term of pride and group identity.



The first documented appearance of the word "nerd" is as the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which the narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo.[4][5] The slang meaning of the term dates back to 1951, when Newsweek magazine reported on its popular use as a synonym for "drip" or "square" in Detroit, Michigan.[6] By the early 1960s, usage of the term had spread throughout the United States, and even as far as Scotland.[7][8] At some point, the word took on connotations of bookishness and social ineptitude.[4]

An alternate spelling, as nurd, also began to appear in the mid-1960s or early '70s.[9] Author Philip K. Dick claimed to have coined this spelling in 1973, but its first recorded use appeared in a 1965 student publication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.[10][11] Oral tradition there holds that the word is derived from "knurd" ("drunk" spelled backwards), which was used to describe people who studied rather than partied. On the other hand, the variant "gnurd" was in wide use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology throughout the first half of the 1970s.

Other theories of the word's origin suggest that it may derive from Mortimer Snerd, Edgar Bergen's ventriloquist dummy,[citation needed] or the Northern Electric Research and Development (N.E.R.& D.) Laboratories in Ontario (now Nortel).[citation needed] The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the word is an alteration of the 1940s term nert (meaning "stupid or crazy person"), which is itself an alteration of "nut".[12]

The term was popularized in the 1970s by its heavy use in the sitcom Happy Days.[citation needed]


The stereotypical nerd is intelligent but socially and physically awkward.[13] They typically appear either to lack confidence or to be indifferent or oblivious to the negative perceptions held of them by others, with the result that they become frequent objects of scorn, ridicule, bullying, and social isolation.

Some nerds show a pronounced interest in subjects which others tend to find dull or boring, too complex and difficult to comprehend, or overly mature for their age, especially topics related to science, mathematics and technology. Conversely, nerds may show an interest in activities that are viewed by their peers as stupid and immature for their age, such as trading cards, comic books, television programs, films, role-playing games, video games, and other things relating to fantasy and science fiction. Nerds are often portrayed as physically unfit, and either obese or very thin. Nerds are also sometimes portrayed as having symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder such as showing extreme interest in rules. Comparisons to Asperger syndrome are common, due to the tendency to engage in intense, specific interests and to experience difficulty in social situations.[14]

Particularly in the case of males, nerds may be perceived as being uninterested in traditionally masculine activities such as sports (either participating in or following) or "locker room talk". While nerds are not necessarily asexual, they are typically depicted as having difficulty attracting sexual partners and may actually be experiencing involuntary celibacy. This tends to be more of a problem for male nerds due to traditional gender roles requiring males to "make the first move" as opposed to expecting to be approached by the opposite sex. Reasons may include shyness or lack of conversational skills outside of certain subjects of interest.[citation needed]

In film and television depictions, nerds are disproportionately white males with very large glasses, braces, severe acne and pants highly lifted up.[15][16] It has been suggested by some, such as linguist Mary Bucholtz, that being a nerd may be a state of being "hyperwhite" and rejecting African-American culture and slang that "cool" white children use.[17] However, after the Revenge of the Nerds movie franchise (with multicultural nerds), and the introduction of the Steve Urkel character on the television series Family Matters, nerds have been seen in all races and colors as well as more recently being a frequent young Asian male stereotype in North America. Portrayal of "nerd girls", or Bluestockings, in films such as She's Out of Control, Welcome to the Dollhouse and She's All That depicts that smart but nerdy women might suffer later in life if they do not focus on improving their physical attractiveness.[18]

Stereotypical nerd qualities have evolved in recent years, going from awkwardness and social ostracism to an allegedly more widespread acceptance and sometimes even celebration of their abilities. This is largely attributable to the rise of the computer industry, which has allowed many "nerdy" people (most notably Bill Gates) to accumulate large fortunes and other measures of social prestige. Some measure of nerdiness is allegedly considered desirable, as, to some, it suggests a person who is intelligent, respectful, interesting, and able to earn a large salary. Such views have arguably effected a waning emphasis on the social awkwardness of nerds, with more attention placed on their intelligence and academic enthusiasm.[citation needed]

Nerd pride

In 1962, Marvel Comics debuted Spider-Man, the super-hero alter-ego of Peter Parker, a nerdy high school student. This franchise has remained immensely popular, launching numerous pulp titles, television programs, and feature films.

In the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds Robert Carradine worked to embody the nerd stereotype; in doing so, he helped create a definitive image of nerds.[19] Additionally, the storyline presaged, and may have helped inspire, the "nerd pride" that emerged in the 1990s. American Splendor regular Toby Radloff claims this was the movie that inspired him to become "The Genuine Nerd from Cleveland, Ohio."[20] In the American Splendor film, Toby's friend, American Splendor author Harvey Pekar, was less receptive to the movie, believing it to be hopelessly idealistic, explaining that Toby, an adult low income file clerk, had nothing in common with the middle class kids in the film who would eventually attain college degrees, success, and cease being perceived as nerds. Many, however, seem to share Radloff's view, as "nerd pride" has become more widespread in the years since. MIT professor Gerald Sussman, for example, seeks to instill pride in nerds:

My idea is to present an image to children that it is good to be intellectual, and not to care about the peer pressures to be anti-intellectual. I want every child to turn into a nerd - where that means someone who prefers studying and learning to competing for social dominance, which can unfortunately cause the downward spiral into social rejection.
— Gerald Sussman, quoted by Katie Hafner, The New York Times, 29 August 1993[21]

Bryan Caplan, a professor of Economics at George Mason University, refers to himself as "an openly nerdy man"[22] and has written of a "Jock/Nerd Theory of History".[23] He believes that income redistribution is a tactic by Jocks to prevent Nerds from gaining power over them.

The popular computer-news website Slashdot uses the tagline "News for nerds. Stuff that matters." The Charles J. Sykes quote "Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one" has been popularized on the Internet and incorrectly attributed to Bill Gates.[24] In Spain, Nerd Pride Day has been observed on May 25 since 2006.[citation needed]

An episode from the animated series Freakazoid, titled "Nerdator", includes the use of nerds to power the mind of a Predator-like enemy, who delivers a memorable monologue on the importance of nerds:[citation needed]

...what they lack in physical strength they make up in brain power. Who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who directs the top grossing Hollywood movies? Nerds. Who creates the highly advanced technology that only they can understand? ...Nerds. And who are the people who run for the high office of the Presidency? No one but nerds.[25]

The Danish reality TV show FC Zulu, known in the internationally franchised format as FC Nerds, established a format wherein a team of nerds, after two or three months of training, competes with a professional soccer team.

Nerdcore hip hop is a genre of hip hop music that has risen in popularity over the last few years, often expressing nerd themes with pride and humor. Notable artists include mc chris, MC Plus+, MC Hawking, MC Lars, MC Paul Barman, and MC Frontalot. The term nerdcore has seen wider application to refer to webcomics (most notably Penny Arcade, User Friendly, PvP, and Megatokyo) and other media that express nerd themes without inhibition.[citation needed]

Although the idea of nerds is popular, those adopting the characteristics of nerds are not actually nerds by definition. One cannot be an authentic nerd by imitation alone; a nerd is an outsider and someone who is unable or unwilling to follow trends. Popular culture is borrowing the concept and image of nerds in order to stand out as individuals.[26]

See also


  1. ^ "Nerd | Define Nerd at", ", LLC" 2011, accessed May 13, 2011.
  2. ^ nerd, n. Oxford English Dictionary online. Third edition, September 2003; online version September 2011. First included in Oxford English Dictionary second edition, 1989.
  3. ^ DA Kinney (1993). "From nerds to normals: The recovery of identity among adolescents from middle school to high school". Sociology of Education (Sociology of Education) 66 (1): 21–40. doi:10.2307/2112783. JSTOR 2112783. 
  4. ^ a b American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, p. 1212, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston - New York - London, 1992
  5. ^ Geisel, Theodor Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo, p. 47, Random House Books for Young Readers, New York, 1950
  6. ^ Newsweek (1951-10-8), p. 16
  7. ^ Gregory J. Marsh in Special Collections at the Swarthmore College library as reported in Humanist Discussion Group (1990-6-28) Vol. 4, No. 0235.
  8. ^ Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail (1957-2-10)
  9. ^ Current Slang: A Quarterly Glossary of Slang Expressions Currently In Use (1971), Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1971, p. 17
  10. ^ Personal Correspondence (1973-9-4) reported on the web
  11. ^ RPI Bachelor (1965), V14 #1
  12. ^ Harper, Douglas. "nerd". Online Etymology Dictionary. 
  13. ^ Kids Called Nerds: Challenge and Hope For Children With Mild Pervasive Developmental Disorders, by Nicholas Putnam, M.D.
  14. ^ Eryn Loeb (May 20, 2008). "The beauty of the geek". Salon. Retrieved 2009-09-03. 
  15. ^ Lori Kendall. "OH NO! I'M A NERD!": Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum. Gender Society. 14:256. (2000)
  16. ^ Ron Eglash. Race, Sex, and Nerds. Social Text. 20: 49 (2002)
  17. ^ Benjamin Nugent (July 29, 2007). "Who’s a Nerd, Anyway?". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  18. ^ Gateward, Frances K.; Murray Pomerance (2002). Sugar, spice, and everything nice:cinemas of girlhood. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 9780814329184. Retrieved 2009-07-23 
  19. ^ Singer, Jon (2005-08-28). "Carradine hits the jackpot as Lewis Skolnick". Lumino. 
  20. ^ [|Hensley, Dennis] (2003-09-02). "Revenge of the nerd: American Splendor's Toby Radloff is out and proud about his sexuality and his nerddom". The Advocate. [dead link]
  21. ^ Hafner, Katie (29 August 1993). "Woman, Computer Nerd -- and Proud". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P. (2000). "Some Rules Kids Won't Learn in School". Retrieved 2007-07-22 
  25. ^ Nerdator animation on Youtube website.
  26. ^ Chicago Tribune

Further reading

  • Bucholtz, Mary. ""Why be normal?": Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls." Language in Society (1999), 28: 203-223. Cambridge University Press.
  • Frayling, Christopher. Mad, Bad And Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema. Reaktion Books, 2005.
  • Genuine Nerd (2006) - Feature-length documentary on Toby Radloff.
  • Kendall, Lori (1999). "'The Nerd Within': Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity Among Computer-Using Men". The Journal of Men's Studies 7 (3): 353–69. 
  • Kendall, Lori (1999). "Nerd Nation: Images of Nerds in U.S. Popular Culture". International Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (2): 260–83. doi:10.1177/136787799900200206. 
  • Kendall, Lori (2000). "'Oh No! I'm a Nerd!': Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum". Gender & Society 14 (2): 256–74. doi:10.1177/089124300014002003. 
  • Nugent, Benjamin. American Nerd: The Story of My People. 2008. ISBN 978-0-7432-8801-9
  • Newitz, A. & Anders, C. (Eds) She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff. Seal Press, 2006.
  • Okada, Toshio. Otaku Gaku Nyumon (Translated: 'Introduction to Otakuology'). Ohta Verlag. Tokyo, 1996.

External links

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  • nerd — [nə:d US nə:rd] n informal [Date: 1900 2000; Origin: Probably from nerd, name of a strange creature in If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss, U.S. children s writer] 1.) someone who seems only interested in computers and other technical things… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

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  • nerd — nerd; nerd·ish; …   English syllables

  • nerd — (n.) 1951, U.S. student slang, probably an alteration of 1940s slang nert stupid or crazy person, itself an alteration of NUT (Cf. nut). The word turns up in a Dr. Seuss book from 1950 ( If I Ran the Zoo ), which may have contributed to its rise …   Etymology dictionary

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